Saturday, 21 July 2018

Devil's Express AKA Death Express (Barry Rosen, 1976)

Luke is a martial-arts master and pillar of the community, but life is getting complex as a gang war is brewing in the neighbour and a series of grisly murders are taking place in the New York Subways. Linking them is a wayward pupil of Luke's Dojo and as the police apply pressure Luke is forced to enter the subways to take on the killer.

Pretty good set-up right? What if I told you the killer was a Chinese demon released from a stolen amulet? Now you're all in.

Don't get too excited though, as this is mostly all set-up. Our heroic Luke, played by the magnificently
monikered Warhawk Tanzania (seriously), doesn't make it into the sewers until the final showdown. Until then it is primarily martial arts gang fights, cops scratching their heads and the occasionally gory kill.

The martial arts aren't anything special ranging from pretty awful to just above competent. Actually, the quality seems to improve as the film goes on. This helps the finale no-end, but makes for a pretty anaemic first hour. The horror scenes are actually pretty effective. Surprisingly so considering what appears to be a very a low budget. The kills are interesting and the make-up effects pretty impressive calling to mind the more realistic, rotting corpse looks of Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters.

The finale, as a whole, is a pretty good. Luke ventures into the subway, in gold dungarees no less,  to fight possessed martial artists and a gnarly-looking corpse thing in a kung-fu showdown. It is the best example of the fighting in the film and the moment where all the disparate elements properly gel.

Is the finale worth the wait? The first half hour of the movie is a bit of a slog. Things pick up a little as the gang fights and murders escalate but it's still hardly dynamite. That being said there is a charm to all of this. The urban locations give bring an elements of grimey, dystopian authenticity to the movie and the combination of different genre elements are difficult not to enjoy even if their execution isn't great. If only they's got Luke into the subway sooner.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Tie chao ren AKA The Super Iron Man (Ting Hung Kuo, Koichi Takano, 1974)

Holy shit where do I even start?

We open with a giant robot emerging from the sea and destroying a passenger liner with a projectile harpoon hand. So far so awesome.

We then jump to Kay, our hero, who is looking wistfully out to sea. I assumed the previous scene was a flashback and that Kay had survived the ordeal, though I may be wrong. I'm not entirely sure how time plays out in this movie.

He is joined by some random dude in glasses who tells him it is time for him to pilot the Super Weapon. He then points to a car that will take him to this weapon whenever he needs to. We have yet to see this Super Weapon but if it is anything like this piece of shit car than we are in for a rough ride. It's a tiny Italian sports car with a massive spoiler on the back and a plastic super-hero as a hood ornament. It looks like someone clumsily spilled a tub of glue into three different Airfix boxes and tried to pass it off as intentional.

Anyway, we then get to meet the villain of the piece; menacingly known only as The Coordinator. When he is not frustrating a small team of admin assistants, as his name would suggest, he is plotting evil plans. Not entirely sure what his evil plan actually is beyond being a dick to the planet Earth. That doesn't matter though 'cos this guy's hair is crazy. Like, PROPER crazy. Picture how crazy you think his hair might be... got it? Now look at the picture at the bottom of this review. You weren't even close were you?

Kay gets driven by the shit-mobile to an underwater base where he jumps into the Super-Weapon (Ah! It's a giant red robot!) who flies out to fight another giant robot. He defeats him with some awesome head and arm spinning much to the chagrin of ole' crazy hair Coordinator.

Confusingly we then cut to Kay, rocking casual denims, hanging out in a field. He is then charged at by five guys in black American Football outfits who engage him in pretty piss-weak martial arts before tying him to a post and kicking explosive footballs at him. Luckily he is saved by an Inspector Clouseau- type on a motorbike that floats in the air because it is tied to a balloon.

Now look - when I tend to write these lists of crazy stuff I always worry people think I'm exaggerating for comic effect but I swear to you this shit all happens. More than that, it happens in this exact sequence. This is, point-for-point, the first 15 minutes of the movie. I'm as confused as you all and I've actually seen this bastard.

This has all the hallmarks of an Eastern TV series being chopped into a movie for a European release. Some minor digging revealed that my suspicions were mostly correct. Originally a Chinese Ultraman knock-off, the version I saw had not only been chopped into an hour twenty but also dubbed in German THEN subtitled in English. I can't imagine much of the script survived that process but it's even harder to imagine the original featured nuanced wordsmanship.  So how does this final, heavily compromised, version play?

Like it was edited using a shuffle mode.

That mad first 15 minutes just carries on, with the big-haired dude being angry, model craft whizzing around over (and sometimes under) water, thugs in football helmets terrorising the denim wonder who escapes only with the arrival of the mysterious Inspector Balloon-bike. This cycle goes on and on without stopping to really explain who is who and why everyone is doing what they do.

It is not without its charm though. The miniature work is good. Not Toho good, mind, but still pretty good. Action scenes are energised through frenetic and borderline abstract editing and camera and while the leaps in narrative bounce you around like a pinball it does mean you never far off a pyrotechnic-heavy battle between two giant robots.

In the final battle the big, bulbous evil robot seems to actually crucify the Super Weapon which suggested to me that this may have been a prolonged Jesus metaphor. Though I don't remember Jesus leaping off of the cross and blowing his enemy up with a flame-thrower lodged in his mouth. Then again at this point the crazy narrative jumble had made the 80-minute runtime feel like a Lord of the Rings Extended Addition so my mental integrity was not at its best.

The whole affair is daft but fun, though I wouldn't blame you at all for bailing after the first 15 minutes.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Gogol's Triple-Bills: The Darkman Trilogy

It's been sad to see my beloved Universal Monsters flail impotently in recent years. The Wolfman, a proper monster movie, was shafted at the box office but more infuriating is the studio's many recent attempts to fuse classic horror with the superhero genre in an attempt to cash in on some Marvel money. Both Dracula Untold and The Mummy both suffered from the mix not being right. Like stirring together too many posters paints they ended up a largely colourless blob. This is all very strange considering Universal Monster aesthetic has been expertly fused with the superhero movie before.

Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990)

Darkman is, I think, pretty well known yet not often talked about. Often seen, possibly dismissed, as Raimi's hokey Spider-Man run through the movie is a perfect blend of monster movie iconography and super-swashbuckling.

On the verge of discovering a synthetic skin formula, Dr Peyton Westlake gets mixed up in gangland real-estate war and is horribly burnt beyond any recognition. Thought dead and too hideous to re-join society Westlake retreats to the shadows, using his formula (which in its incomplete form is sensitive to sunlight) to masquerade as members of the gang in order to get revenge.

A very game Liam Neeson plays the tortured creature to perfection, signing onto the absurdity totally and managing to generate thrills, laughs and pangs of sorrow. With a supporting cast of Francis McDormand and Larry Drake the movie zips from maniacal plans from Dr Phibes, rafter swinging from The Phantom of the Opera and rooftop daring-do right out of Batman.

Raimi juggles all of these disparate tones and, as usual, makes it look effortless. His love of The Shadow (a super-hero project he longed to get into production) in addition to his willingness to bring in old-school effects such as stop-motion and back-projection, plus his penchant for slapstick, is key to fusing all these elements together. It's great fun and an approach that Universal should really be studying.

Darkman 2: The Return of Durant (Bradford May, 1995)

Less well-known is that Darkman spawned two straight to video sequels. The budget is stripped a little, Neeson has been replaced by Arnold Vosloo and, in the case of this middle-child, the quality has gone.

Robert G. Durant, Larry Drake's mob-boss from the first movie, is back and looking to flood the illegal arms market with experimental laser weapons. Darkman is having none of it.

Vosloo is fine but never quite animates himself in the way that Neeson did. Drake is great as usual but the film suffers from a couple of major issues. Firstly; it is boring as hell. The plot plods along with very little incident. An opening car chase is fine and the finale, a serviceable shoot-out, is ok but between these set-pieces is a real absence of anything exciting or fun.

Yes, the straight to video budget would have had a massive impact on what they could or could not have achieved but that is no excuse for its second major flaw; it looks weak as hell.

All the horror iconography is gone. There is no atmosphere, no colour, no tension. Darkman stills looks the same, which is good, but he is never framed in a way that gives the film its monster-movie frisson. This is a weak movie and one for completists only.

Darkman 3: Die Darkman Die! (Bradford May, 1996)

The third outing never reaches the thrill of the first but it does show that everyone involved learned their lessons from the previous movie.

With Durant now dead a new mob-boss, played by Jeff Fahey, is taking control. His plan: to harvest Darkman's DNA to make an army of super-soldiers. You may think Fahey is a trade down from Larry Drake in the villain department but oh-no Fahey is on fire in this.

There is also some reds and greens in the mix adding a touch (just) of Argento into the proceedings. The action is a massive step up as well. A gauntlet of explosions is an exciting little set-piece while the finale, though not massively bigger than the last movie's, is considerably better executed.

May favourite scene, however, is when Darkman actually finds his masquerading backfire on him as he is forced to navigate a huge family birthday party, complete with piano recital. It's a moment of humour and tension that even Raimi didn't wring from the rubber-mask conceit.

Lets not overlook how awesome a title this movie has nor the fact it has perhaps the greatest pronunciation of the word "balls" ever committed to film.

Despite the weak middle movie this trilogy has a great opener and a threequel that shows there is value in repeat outings for this character. Mostly it proves you can mix the super-hero and gothic horror genres to great effect. Something Universal studios is in great need of schooling in.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Gogol's Triple-Bills: Bad Trips in the Desert

I've always had a fondness for movies where road trips turn into automotive conflicts. The kind of movies that owe their conception to Duel. The kind of movies that feature dust-bowl towns, dangerous locals and Police that might be in on the whole thing. The kind of movie where the driver gets tired or has to search for something in the glove box, only to find upon returning attention to the road a big-rig or bus heading straight towards him, and managing to save himself with a last minute swerve off-road. Y'know, those kinds of movies. Here are three belters.

Breakdown (Johnathan Mostow, 1997)

Breakdown is what you get when you mix a little Hitchcock into your cross-country car chase. Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan accept help from a truck driver when they break down in the dessert. The driver offers to drop Quinlan off at the nearest truck-stop while Russel fixes the car but when he eventually gets to the meeting he discovers She never arrived. 

Russell searches desperately in the vast and empty wasteland but finds only a conspiracy. Director Johnathan Mostow turns those screws putting Russell, who plays an everyman rather than an action hero, through his paces. Unlike a lot of movies such as this the tension never drops, it doesn't spill outside of it's own internal logic for cheap thrills and its climax is a small scale but thrilling car-on-car battle. 

Race With The Devil (Jack Starrett, 1975)

I'd seen this movie as a kid and mentally filed it as 'not scary enough to be a horror, not enough action to be a chase movie' but having seen it recently (for the first time since I was a child) I can firmly state that as a kid I was a prick, because this movie rocks. 

Two couples take their motor-home across America to go skiing. They pull up to sleep one night and the two husbands (played by Warren Oates and Peter Fonda) witness some devil worshipping that ends in the sacrifice of a young girl. They report it to the local Police but find themselves hunted from state to state by Satanists.

It is a great concept and the movie pulls it off, but it is not without its problems. The movie has an issue with tension. Every time something unpleasant happens to them they just pull into a nice spot and try and get on with their holiday. Of course something ghastly and macabre occurs again and the cycle starts all over. Although the severity of the horrible event escalates the impact these events are having on our characters doesn't. They all seem to get over each event pretty quickly. It particularly hurts the ending which tries to convince us its an unexpected and shocking reveal but feels no less shocking than any other beat in the movie. As a result it just seems to end.

That being said there is a monster of a chase sequence that I had completely forgotten about and was not expecting. In the climactic moments the motor-home is besieged by trucks and cars in a high speed chase while devil worshippers leap from vehicle to vehicle trying to get inside. As Oates runs them off the road Fonda hangs outside blasting away with a shotgun. There are flips and rolls, explosions and one poor pagan getting slammed into a low bridge. It isn't quite The Road Warrior level, but it is a brilliantly staged and captured action sequence that comes very close.

The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

I think The Hitcher might be a perfect movie. That doesn't mean its the best movie ever, it just means that considering the kind of movie it is I can't think of anything it would need to improve it. The plot is simple: C.Thomas Howell is driving across the desert and picks up Rutger Hauer's hitch-hiker. He then immediately fucking regrets it.

This movie has everything you could want. Well measured and executed tension, high-octane vehicular action and moments of proper horror. The opening moments where the two converse and Hauer's intentions are slowly revealed is one my favourite movie openings ever and would work well as a horror short alone. 

There are so many effective moments - the jail cell opening, the finger - so good. Hauer is phenomenal in this. Rather than play the villain as a Terminator style killing machine or parade well-worn 'psycho' ticks he gives the character charm, swagger and a sense of humour. The diner scene in particular is wonderfully played by both actors.

It too has a pretty destructive car chase. Not only do Police cars tumble down the highway but a chopper gets in on the action too.

The exact mix ingredients in these kinds of movies can vary, some leaning heavy on the supernatural (such as The Car) while others playing with 70's car chase movie vibes in addition to horror (like Death Proof). These three films, however, not only blend their elements in a very particular way but manage to keep them pure across three decades. Aside from some fashion tells these screenshots could all have been from the same movie. I am by no means saying these three are superior however they exists as examples of a carefully mixed cocktail of suspense, horror and balls-out stunt work.